Removing “democratic” from the identity of Israel

The definition of the State of Israel                                                                            Historically, the phrase “Jewish and democratic “ has been  and presently  continues to be used to describe the State of Israel .This phrase was first formally introduced through the Education Law of  1953. Over the years this description progressively mutated to the point that it  is no longer  merely descriptive of the State. Instead, I has become the definition of the fundamental twin identity of the State of Israel.

Submission                                                                                                                                  I submit that, by now it is high time to excise the term “democratic” from the definition of the identity of the State of Israel because,                                                                                  First, it is no longer necessary,                                                                                                    Second,  the manner in which the term has been used since the 1967 war  by the anti-Semitic cum Israeli movements has been and continues to be prejudicial to the State of Israel.

 Preliminary observation,                                                                                                          The current definition of Israel’s fundamental identity is unique, not because Israel is the only Jewish State in the world but because it is at odds with the definition of the identity of every other democracy. For example, no one defines the fundamental identities of                    Spain, Italy or France as a “Catholic [Spanish, Italian or French] and democratic” or that of the Germany as a “Lutheran/Catholic [German] and democratic.”

Lack of necessity for the use of the term                                                                                  The democratic character of the Israeli polity and society in effect since the establishment of the State has been self-evident to the extent that, in judicial proceedings the party alleging this fact would not need to call on expert witnesses to adduce evidence to prove it, as the Court, in the ordinary course of events, would take Judicial Notice of it.

Predatory use of the term                                                                                                          The juxtaposition of the terms Jewish and democracy as referring to distinct and realities and identities is most regrettable. It suggests that Jewishness and democracy are mutually exclusive.

The explicit distinction between these two identities, originally useful to help market the new country on the world stage and to reassure the Arab and Muslim minorities of the country that their existence will be a safe one governed by the rule of law, became problematic after the 1967 war.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the war, the use of the term in con junction with the Jewishness of the State has fuelled and continues to fuel the accusation that  the Jewishness of the country is incompatible with democracy, and as such, Israel is an apartheid society with all the features of one in its treatment of the minorities, and of course, principally the Arab-Palestinian one. An argument advanced at every opportunity, and if such opportunity does not materialise when needed, to create one.

Unfortunately, some segments of the Israeli society, have inadvertently lent credibility to this fundamentally fallacious argument. For example, Yishai Fleisher, Ted Belman and others claim that Jewishness and democracy are “incompatible”.

The fallacy of this argument is readily demonstrable by,

First, the treatment of the Israeli Haredi, who among other things, refuse to recognise,  indeed, firmly  reject the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and their organised, at times quiet violent  demonstration  against serving in the IDF. And yet, they are allowed to run for Knesset, get elected, with some serving in the Cabinet, while the community receives  financial support  from the very State whose legitimacy they reject, funded  in part by the hard working Israeli taxpayers whom they vilify on all sorts of religious grounds, and

Second, by Israel’s decent behaviour and treatment of its minorities and in particular the Arab/Palestinian one, notwithstanding the difficult political and military situation and the fact that this community has elected and still elects members of Knesset that have spent their time, at government expense, to vilify the government for a variety of imputed sins, the IDF, Zionism, some going as far as praising the who maime, but preferably, kill innocent Israelis.

Yet, the community is provided with its own religious court, schools taught exclusively in Arabic, employment opportunities with living wages; as well as unlimited educational opportunities and excellent employment and career prospects for the educated ones.

At all events, describing Jewish and democracy as incompatible is not helpful to finding the right balance between Jewish values and those of a secular democracy whose object is, and  in effect does provide, peace, order and good government  by establishing the rule of law, promoting its respect; maintaining it through proper enforcement and an independent judiciary, so as to enable the inhabitants of the country to live together regardless of their religion, national and ethnic origins, and assorted values,  despite the fact that some of these  are odds .

Unfortunately and ironically, the overall rulings of the Supreme Court of Israel, by favouring the primacy of civil and human rights over Jewish values have by and large sustained the view that democracy does not need Jewishness and Jewishness precludes democracy while the laws of Knesset are subject to the direction the judicial monarchy; a divisive approach to a complex society  riven with religious, ideological and cultural cleavages.

Mati Tuchfeld put it that former Chief Justice Barak’s “judicial revolution” turned Israel from a parliamentary democracy into a [secular] judicial monarchy [with a self-perpetuating attendants] in which Magistrates’ Court judges allowed themselves to overrule laws passed by the Knesset.                 

Regrettably,  this is only part of the problem which has been compounded by the Attorney General who self- metamorphosed into a Crown prince who uses his self-assigned royal prerogatives to refuse to plead and defend before the Court, the duly enacted laws of the Knesset and government decisions and policies that are not to its liking   and instead to plead his royal views to the detriment of the Knesset and the government.

Nevertheless, the Judicial monarchy’s approach has not invariably been counter-productive as for example when it                                                                                                               a) Demanded and still demands the government to enact a more equitable law to compel the Haredi to serve in the army as every other Israeli young men do; or                                          b) Held that public transportation cannot have a seating arrangement that segregates passengers according to their gender.

At all events, to the extent the Supreme Court ignored the Jewishness of Israel, this was not inevitable in the light of the facts that,                                                                                        a) The  bizarre Basic Law  governing the judiciary that made it possible to get the kind of  institution the Court  was tabled by a democratically elected  government and enacted by the a democratically elected Knesset;                                                                                               b)While successive  governments and/or Knessets could have not seen fit   to remedy the shortcomings and defects of the original legislation by amending it, and                                     c)  The current government  and/or the Knesset can still take remedial action to address the legislative shortcomings and defects.

The Challenges of Democracy                                                                                                     Since its establishment, the State of Israel had to integrate massive number of immigrants originating from numerous countries, who among other things; had different  and, at times, divergent political traditions and practices; experienced their Jewishness differently in their respective country of origin; belonged to various branches of Judaism, and who were Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, with the latter two being subjected to offensive discriminatory treatment until, and even since, the ascension Menachem Begin to power .

All of the foregoing factors in turn inevitably led to the division of the Israeli society along social, political, cultural, ideological and above all religious lines, some of which remain unresolved.

And in the difficult process of integrating the immigrants and harmonising the new society, inevitably some of the principles of democracy may have been temporarily challenged. But this is hardly an issue specific to Israel, to Israelis Jews.

Democratic values are part of the Jewish DNA                                                                         In so far as the Jewishness of the Israeli society is concerned, I submit that for the Jewish people, the historical series of massive expulsions;  forced  mass conversions; pogroms; genocides; random killings; dispossessions, discrimination, and exclusion from the mainstream of society, not to mention the Inquisitions and the  monstrosity of the Holocaust which  they  experienced since their expulsion from Eretz Israel by the Romans, has had the effect of  implanting into their Jewish DNA , an insatiable craving for freedom and equality under and through the enforcement of the rule of law, nourished by democratic values.

Admittedly, a segment of the Jewish people proved to be immune to the modification of their DNA and continues to live in accordance with the wisdom of the precepts of Judaism, as they interpret and apply them and which in a number of instances are indeed inconsistent with some of those which inform both the international and democratic ideals and values.

In conclusion                                                                                                                                It  is  high time for Israel to stop implicitly apologising  for  its identity as a Jewish state  with all that this entails; full stop- by keep assuring the world that while it is Jewish, it is also a democratic one with all that this entails.

Therefore, it is also high time the State of Israel to drop the term democratic from the definition of its identity and to discourage its  use at every opportunity.

There is simply no point in emphasising the existence of something that for the last 70 years has been and continues to be so patently self-evident.

Instead, it is high time to address  resolutely what to me is the critical thorny  problem of defining  the substance of the Jewish identity of State of Israel and its relation to the Israeli democracy which, to borrow Jonathan Tobin’s description of it, is a messy, nasty, bitter and contentious [and I would add “confusing”] as it has been for the last 70 years…

Then again, as the late Winston Churchill put it after WW: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms, that have been tried from time to time.

Whether the Israeli voters can help solve this particular problem based on what they think is best for the country remains to be seen.

Having just spoken its mind  on this problem in a rather confusing way, for the next four years, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s legacy term, what is needed ,above all, wise disciplined leadership willing to rise above politics such as it is willing to make and carry out tough decisions  including some that will undo  some of the bad ones based on political expediency.





About the Author
Doğan Akman was born and schooled in Istanbul, Turkey. Upon his graduation from Lycee St. Michel, he immigrated to Canada with his family. In Canada, he taught university in sociology-criminology and social welfare policy and published some articles in criminology journals After a stint as a Judge of the Provincial Court (criminal and family divisions) of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, he joined the Federal Department of Justice working first as a Crown prosecutor, and then switching to civil litigation and specialising in aboriginal law. Since his retirement he has published articles in Sephardic Horizons and e-Sefarad and in an anthology edited by Rifat Bali titled This is My New Homeland and published in Istanbul.